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Tribute to a King



“Dad was really wide open to all of the music. I was listening to rhythm and blues and rock and roll, and he was wanting to hear that, too. Smokey Robinson, Motown stuff, Marvin Gaye.”

      The words are those of Nat “King” Cole’s daughter, Carol, quoted in Daniel Mark Epstein’s definitive biography of the singer. There are other words which connect Cole to principal characters at Motown. “I’m not Nat ‘King’ Cole,” Marvin Gaye told a newspaper just weeks after the November 1965 release of his album, A Tribute To The Great Nat King Cole, “and I never presumed to be. The album was meant to be just what it is, a tribute to Mr. Cole. It isn’t an imitation of him.”

      Mr. Cole was Berry Gordy’s first musical idol, too. “In fact, I tried to imitate him so much,” he once told me, “because my goal was to make music, make some money, and get some girls. Nat ‘King’ Cole was my way of getting girls.” When BG sang on a Gordy Printing radio commercial aired on WJLB Detroit, “some people thought it was Nat King Cole,” he claimed in To Be Loved.

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      In January 1959, as Gordy was setting up Tamla Records’ first release, Cole was performing for a week at Detroit’s Riviera Theater, a “world premiere” prior to a nationwide U.S. tour. Did the Motown founder find time to see that show, or was he too preoccupied?

      Still another Motown principal had a Cole connection. “I became friendly with Nat,” says Barney Ales, “when he and his wife used to come through Detroit.” Ales, the marketing maven whose job was to get Motown’s records on the radio during its early years and beyond, had previously worked for Cole’s label, Capitol Records. “Nat was just the warmest person you could meet, as well as the most talented,” he recalls.

      It was Ales’ task to sell A Tribute To The Great Nat King Cole in 1965, just as it was with Gaye’s earlier When I’m Alone I Cry and Hello Broadway albums. This proved difficult for a firm chasing the charts with explosive pop and R&B singles rather than albums of “standards.” Gordy admitted the difficulty, too. “Our focus was on the Motown sound, and so because those albums didn’t happen with Marvin, it wasn’t necessarily a reflection on him. It could have been a reflection on me and the company’s efforts in moving in that direction. As far as I was concerned, Marvin was a great balladeer.”


      That fact is reinforced with the release today (March 15) by Universal Music of A Tribute To The Great Nat King Cole in an expanded, digital edition. It contains the Tamla album’s original mono mix of twelve songs, plus a number of previously unissued outtakes with alternate vocals. Marvin sings many of Cole’s most memorable hits, including “Straighten Up And Fly Right,” “Nature Boy,” “Send For Me” and “Ramblin’ Rose.”

      The new collection was produced by Universal Music’s Harry Weinger, architect of so many Motown catalogue essentials, and Andrew Flory, music professor and author of I Hear A Symphony: Motown and Crossover R&B. Most of the vocals on the original LP were cut in Detroit in March 1965, a month after Cole’s death. Harvey Fuqua supervised the vocal sessions, while the bulk of the music tracks were recorded in California with Marc Gordon and Hal Davis in charge.

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      Gaye’s initial tries at “Unforgettable” and “Send For Me” were set aside, according to Flory, and new ones cut in Detroit in June. “The shelved versions are available here for the first time. I tend to like the odd, otherworldliness of the first, with all of its odd tape warts, caused by fluctuating tape speed.

      “These were among Motown’s first 8-track reels,” Flory continues, “which means that Marvin had multiple tracks to use for vocals. But he didn’t really utilise the technology, recording several takes of each song in virtually the same way – something he never did later on. Thus, there are some takes that didn’t even make sense to include because they sound so much like the others.”

      In addition to the outtakes – “Unforgettable” and three versions of “Send For Me” – the new edition of A Tribute To The Great Nat King Cole has alternate vocals for “Too Young” and “Ramblin’ Rose.” It also assembles seven songs recorded by Gaye in New York during August 1965, produced by Mickey Stevenson. They are, for the most part, Tin Pan Alley standards in the manner of the Cole material, such as “The More I See You” and “I Wish You Love.”

      These seven songs have been previously available, as part of the Marvin Gaye Unreleased 1965 digital set. What’s significant to Flory is that five of the seven were arranged by Melba Liston, the renowned jazz trombonist and arranger who worked with Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Dexter Gordon and Billie Holiday, among others, during a remarkable career. In the 1960s, she was frequently employed by Motown to write arrangements or play on sessions.


      “You just sign your W-2, go home and don’t even know the titles, which come later,” Liston said in a 1981 interview. “I did hundreds for Motown and don’t know who most of the singers are. I know Marvin Gaye and Billy Eckstine. Many other voices passed through there, but I don’t know all of them.” Of Liston’s Gaye sessions, Flory says, “They were really good arrangements that give a sense of using freelance instead of staff arrangers. Of course, this leads to Bobby Scott and the Vulnerable tracks.”

      (Flory is referring to the occasion in 1966 when Gaye set about recording another set of ballads with a blue-chip arranger, who was Scott. These were eventually made available in 1997, in a form Gaye likely would have wished: a ten-track deluxe CD edition called Vulnerable.)

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      A Tribute To The Great Nat King Cole was originally released one year after Hello Broadway, which had been singled out in a Detroit Free Press article. “The point is that ears which could never grasp Mr. Gaye’s meaning when he was all-R&B now are not only within range, but are practically in the fold as well,” wrote the newspaper’s Mort Persky in February ’65. “It is too early to predict that Marvin Gaye will go on to the popular attainments of Nat Cole, but to speculate on the possibility is interesting, to say the least.”

      Marvin must have been delighted, even though the plaudit was probably planted with Persky by Motown publicist Al Abrams, who would have known that the singer was due to begin cutting the Cole repertoire at Hitsville just three weeks later.

      The new edition of the tribute album is certain to attract extra attention as Capitol Records celebrates Cole’s centennial year (he was born on March 17, 1919). The label is also releasing two new compilations today: Ultimate Nat King Cole and International Nat King Cole.

      It’s interesting to directly compare Marvin’s interpretations with Cole’s originals. For the most part, the Motown star steers closely to the arrangements and style of the man he aspired to be – sometimes to his disadvantage, because of the memorable timbre of Cole’s voice. We know now (and knew in 1965) that Marvin had his own vocal identity; it’s a shame more of that wasn’t on display for this venture.

      There is one occasion when he steps outside of reverence. That’s the original album’s version of “Send For Me,” where Gaye’s voice seems bluesier, the attack stronger, the electricity surging at 240 volts instead of 120. “You know my number,” he declares on the fade, and you’re motivated to call – especially when you learn that both the vocal and the track were recorded in Detroit.

      That few record buyers picked up A Tribute To The Great Nat King Cole in 1965 is not news, but the latest version does provide valuable insights into Gaye’s talent, ability and ambition at the time. “I don’t think I’ve been ‘typed’ in my singing,” he said in one of the press interviews around the album. “I can sing for the kids and for adult audiences, and I like all types of music.”

      What’s the likelihood that there’ll be celebrations around Marvin Gaye’s centennial year, beginning on April 2, 2039?


Music notes: on digital services, A Tribute To The Great Nat King Cole sits comfortably alongside When I’m Alone I Cry, Hello Broadway and The Soulful Moods Of Marvin Gaye, the singer’s debut album. There’s also Vulnerable and Live At The Copa, although – curiously – the singer offered no Cole classics during his 1966 stint at the New York nightclub. Meanwhile, the newly released Ultimate Nat King Cole includes six of the songs which Gaye chose for his tribute: “Nature Boy,” “Pretend,” “Straighten Up And Fly Right,” “Mona Lisa,” “Unforgettable” and “Sweet Lorraine.”

Adam White10 Comments